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Nov 16, 2017

US investors lagging on ESG integration, study finds

Concerns about ‘financial trade-off’ may deter institutional investors from integrating ESG principles into investment decisions, according to report

A selection of institutional investors put their money where their mouth is this proxy season, but US investors still lag behind their counterparts in Europe and Canada in terms of integrating ESG into their strategy, according to new research.  

Only half (49 percent) of US institutions surveyed by RBC Global Asset Management use ESG principles as part of their investment approach, compared with 85 percent of institutions in Europe and 73 percent in Canada.

US investors are less likely than their European and Canadian counterparts to think of ESG analysis as a risk-mitigator or a source of alpha, according to the survey of 434 institutional asset owners and investment consultants.

Those findings arise despite several proxy voting landmarks this year, such as State Street voting against the election of directors at 400 companies without female board representation, and Blackrock, Vanguard and Fidelity voting in favor of shareholder proposals related to climate change – ultimately leading to ExxonMobil, Occidental and PPL Corporation being defeated.

‘These answers suggest a really fundamental misunderstanding about ESG integration,’ Judy Cotte, head of responsible investing and corporate governance at RBC Global Asset Management, tells Corporate Secretary. ‘ESG integration is about ensuring you’re factoring material ESG factors that may have an impact on performance into your investment process.’

One in four US institutions (25 percent) plan to increase their allocation to portfolio managers that have added ESG into their decision-making process, while 49 percent of European institutions and 15 percent of Canadian institutions intend to do the same.

In the US, Europe and Canada, around 60 percent of investors that consider ESG criteria are not satisfied with the level of reporting by issuers. But respondents disagree about who should be influencing companies to provide better information: US and Canadian respondents say shareholders should take the lead in influencing companies, but European investors feel it’s the role of government regulators.

Cotte says she is sympathetic to issuers that aren’t sure which ESG reporting framework – such as those from the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (, 11/9), the Global Reporting Initiative or the International Integrated Reporting Council – to use. She recommends focusing on what is material and including that in existing financial filings.

‘Even if you want to include it in your corporate sustainability report, you should be discussing it in materiality terms, rather than having a document be a glossy marketing tool,’ she adds.

According to a separate survey, many institutional investors still see ESG-linked investing as a good-conscience trade-off at the expense of long-term returns. Less than half (48 percent) of the 104 institutional investors surveyed by Hermes Investment Management believe companies that focus on ESG issues produce better long-term returns. This marks an 8 percentage-point drop from last year’s results.

‘The link between ESG considerations and financial value creation needs to be more clearly recognized,’ Saker Nusseibeh, CEO of Hermes Investment Management, writes in the report. ‘Companies that can adapt to social and environmental change are likely to deliver better long-term results for shareholders.’

Ben Ashwell

Ben Ashwell

Ben Ashwell is the editor at IR Magazine and Corporate Secretary, covering investor relations, governance, risk and compliance. Prior to this, he was the founder and editor of Executive Talent, the global quarterly magazine from the Association of...